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Authors: Sharon Flake

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BOOK: Skin I'm in, The
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Twenty minutes later we head for the door. Char’s still sitting at the front of the cafeteria. Boys are crowded around, so that all you can see is them purple shoes of hers and that tight, black designer skirt. When she stands up to leave, one boy puts his arms round her waist and whispers something in her ear. She laughs, but you can tell she’s faking it. She puts on her sunglasses, and walks toward the door with them boys following her like she’s a movie star.

Before she leaves, she looks over my way and pulls her sunglasses down past her nose, so they’re leaning on her top lip. She stares me down, then whispers something to one of the twins, and keeps on stepping.

″Ignore her,″ Desda says. The next thing I know, Raise is coming my way.

″Char wants to know if you’ve done her math?″

I reach in my bookbag and pull out some papers. Char and them are in a different math class than me. It’s a class for kids who don’t have a clue what’s going on. I hand the homework to Raise. ″I didn’t have time to do the social studies,″ I say, lying through my teeth. The social studies paper is still in my bag. It’s the first time I don’t give Char what she’s asked for.

″Did you do mine and my sister’s?″ Raise wants to know.

I hand the other math papers to her.

As we leave the lunchroom, Desda says I shouldn’t do nothing for them. ″Yeah, right,″ I say.

CHAPTER 12

 

THE NEXT DAY I’M WAITING IN
the bathroom seems like forever. No Char. She’s punishing me for getting out my place yesterday, I guess. When Char says come, you come. When she says do this for me, you do it, or else bad stuff happens. I didn’t give Char her social studies homework yesterday, so no clothes for me today. Now I got to go to class in Momma’s things or wear the clothes Char gave me yesterday. I got them here in my backpack. They’re folded small as a bag of bread. They’re wrinkled worse than Caleb’s grand-momma’s face, though.

I don’t have much choice, so I keep on my own clothes. I stretch my arms toward the mirror. Not bad. Sleeves is even. Buttons sewed on straight. The seam down the shirt sleeve is crooked, is all. Could be worse.

I’m thinking maybe I’ll skip class. Miss Saunders gave me this here book the other day.
Life of a Slave Girl,
it’s called. She said maybe it would help me with my writing. I’ve already read it twice. I stayed up all night reading it two days ago. I read it with a flashlight under the covers so Momma wouldn’t holler. That book made me cry. It made me think about Akeelma and what was waiting for her once the boat docked.

While I’m still deciding if I’m gonna skip class, I tell myself that I’m only going to read
Life of a Slave Girl
for five minutes. The next thing I know, the late bell is ringing. I’m shoving that book in my bookbag and running down the hall.

″Walk, Miss Madison,″ a teacher says to me. ″And pick up that paper you just dropped.″

Good thing nobody sees what is on my paper. It’s another one of them Akeelma letters.

Dear Diary:

When you are hungry, really hungry, even mush crawling with maggots tastes good. So I can’t help licking my lips when that girl put the last fingerful of my food in her mouth. A thief, that one is. Yesterday I grabbed her hands and tried to take back what was mine. It fell to the floor, and someone else scooped it up. She is a lion who cares for no one but herself.


Akeelma

I’m almost to Miss Saunders’s room when John-John McIntyre starts up with me again.

″New clothes, huh?″ he says, trying to be smart.

I stop walking and turn to him and ask real smart like, ″Why you always picking on me?″ I ain’t sure what’s come over me. I guess thinking about Akeelma makes me wonder why people treat others like they’re nothing.

″Chill, Maleeka,″ John-John says, strutting down the hall alongside me. He gets quiet, and I hear his big sneakers squeaking every time they hit the floor.

Then I say something that surprises us both. ″Why me?″

He knows what I’m asking. He keeps on stepping.

″Why do you hate me?″ I ask, looking right at John-John.

His cheek twitches. ″You bugging, girl,″ he says.

I look at him like he’s crazy. John-John’s been hating me all my life it seems. Now he’s standing here denying it.

″I don’t think nothing about you,″ he says, jerking up his pants.

Seems like nobody’s in the halls but me and John-John, only there’s plenty of kids around, pushing and shoving one another out of the way. The teachers are trying their best to move all us kids along, but it ain’t working so good.

″That song you sing about me ain’t right, John-John,″ I say. ″It just ain’t right.″

″So what? You ain’t all that, you know.″

All
what,
I want to ask. But John-John don’t give me a chance. He says I got what I deserved on the bus that day. He says since the first time he met me, I acted like I was better than him.

I’m looking at John-John like I ain’t never seen him before. Better than him? When I do that?

He says something stupid-crazy. Says it was back in second grade when I first moved to the Heights. I walked into class that first day with my new pink polka-dotted dress on and black patent leather shoes. The teacher told me to sit in the desk next to his. I said I didn’t want to. I wanted to sit in the one up front, next to Caleb.

″That half-white punk,″ John-John says, knowing full well Caleb ain’t mixed.

Now my mouth’s hanging open. ″I didn’t even know Caleb back then,″ I say. ″I wanted to sit up front, cause I couldn’t see the board.″ I explain.

Looking at John-John, I tell him, ″You hated me all these years for something I didn’t even do.″

″No matter,″ he says. ″You given me plenty of reasons not to like you since then. Thinking you super-smart. Acting like you too good for me.″

I tell John-John how things really is. ″I’m failing all my classes. Char’s on my case all the time. I gotta borrow clothes to look like somebody.″

″Good,″ John-John says. ″You always thought you was better than me. Now look at you. You just as bad off as the rest of us. Worse, maybe. Caleb don’t want no part of you now, I bet.″ Now John-John’s bobbing his head up and down, laughing like this whole thing is funny.

John-John looks at me like I’m dirt or something. I swallow hard. I think about what Daddy once said about not seeing yourself with other people’s eyes. I keep on stepping. When I open the door to Miss Saunders’s room, John-John’s right behind me. For once, Miss Saunders’s not getting on my case about being late. Then it hits me. John-John McIntyre is jealous of me. But why?

I sit there for about five minutes trying to figure this thing out with John-John before I notice Miss Saunders ain’t here. It’s seeing Worm with his narrow butt parked on Daphne’s desk that makes me know something’s not right. When I look up front, nobody’s there but two kids drawing on the board. I guess Miss Saunders is sick. ″All right, a substitute,″ I say. ″No work today.″ Before I can even smile good about it, Miss Saunders comes flying into the room. ″Sorry I’m late,″ she says, all out of breath.

I’m sorry you’re here, I whisper.

CHAPTER 13

 

WHY DO TEACHERS TELL YOU STUFF
you don’t want to hear? Like how wonderful their children are, or how big their house is, or what a quiet, pretty neighborhood they live in. It’s Miss Saunders’s turn, I guess. She comes in telling us she’s late because her toilet ran over and she had to clean her white carpets before they got stained. Like we really care.

She presses her hands against her gray pinstriped pants suit, then pulls the jacket sleeves down. No gold bracelet today, just a watch on one arm and a thin gold necklace around her neck.

Miss Saunders is a motion machine this morning. She sets down her briefcase, throws her black bag into the closet up front, slaps her hands together like giant paddles, and tells everybody to get quiet.

Then she fans herself with her hand. ″My landlord had to come over.″ She’s opening and closing drawers looking for who knows what. ″I am never late, you guys know that.″ Now she’s fingering the chalk. Pacing the room. There’s sweat on her face. She leans herself against the desk and rubs her chin like she’s trying to find lost words. ″Well, let’s get started,″ she says, not even seeing what we all see up there on the blackboard.

″Who can tell me what Shakespeare meant when he …,″ she begins, finally getting a good look at our faces.

Everybody is quiet. ″Who read the thirty pages I assigned last night?″ Miss Saunders asks.

Most of the hands go up, including mine, even though I didn’t read none of it.

″Then let’s get to work,″ she says, heading for the blackboard. When Miss Saunders sees what somebody’s drawn, she stops in her tracks, like she’s been hit in the stomach. There’s a woman’s face up there on the blackboard. The left side is smooth and pretty. The right side is cracked and drooping like melting wax. It’s done in pink, brown and blue. It’s a mess, that’s all I can say.
THE TEACHER WITH TWO FACES
. Wiggly words spell it out in blue chalk.

Miss Saunders’s big hands erase the board with four quick swipes, like a windshield wiper on full speed. ″Who can sum up yesterday’s reading for me? John McIntrye?″ She says his name real weird, like maybe she ain’t just asking him about schoolwork, but accusing him of drawing the picture. We all stare at John-John. I know he didn’t draw the picture. He came into class after me. Miss Saunders carries on with her lesson. ″Tell me about today’s reading assignment. What would you do if you were Romeo and you loved a girl you couldn’t have?″

″Dump her,″ John-John says, staring right at me. ″Why sweat it? There’s plenty of girls out there.″

Everybody laughs. ″John-John, you would not,″ Carrie Miller says. ″If you ever
got
a girl to like you— and we all know that ain’t never gonna happen— you’d sell your skin to keep her.″

Miss Saunders slaps her hands together to get off the chalk and asks Carrie to hold her thought. Next thing you know, Miss Saunders is sitting on the corner of Carrie’s desk, crossing her legs. ″Let John tell his story his way. But John, remember. This is the love of your life. Her folks are trying to keep you apart because you’re not good enough, so they say.″

″Nobody wants to talk about this stuff,″ I say half under my breath.

Miss Saunders starts, walking the classroom aisles. ″What
do
you want to talk about?″ she asks us.

″Why Maleeka’s so black,″ John-John says. Miss Saunders’s eyes shoot his way. Her smile is gone and her arms are folded tight.

″Sorry,″ John-John says, shrugging and folding his arms too.

″Out of my room, John-John.″ Miss Saunders points to the door.

″But—″

″But nothing,″ she says.

Man, I’m thinking, why can’t she just let it go. Forget about it. Don’t she see dragging it out only makes it worse.

Next thing I know, John-John’s faking an apology to me, mumbling that he’s sorry. ″OK, everybody, let’s get this thing back on track,″ Miss Saunders says. ″Romeo and Juliet. Give me your thoughts,″ she says, unbuttoning her suit jacket. ″Romeo and Juliet didn’t play by the rules. People had expectations for them. Wanted them to act and be a certain way. But they refused.″

″Yeah, and they died anyhow,″ Worm shouts from the back. ″So what is your point?″

″You
tell
me.
Anybody here believe strongly enough to die for something or someone?″

″My homies,″ Eric yells. ″I’d give up blood for one of my boys.″

″My momma,″ shouts Desda.

″Nobody,″ says Jerimey. ″Ain’t doing no dying for nobody but me. It’s cold but true. Don’t love nobody as much as my own fine black self,″ he says, kissing his arm from shoulder to fingertip.

Now everybody’s cracking up, including Miss Saunders.

″Yeah, Jerimey loves hisself, some Jerimey,″ Raina says.

Jerimey starts rubbing his cheeks. ″You gotta love yourself, baby. If you don’t, who will?″

″Romeo loved Juliet. My father loves my mother. People love other people,″ Desda says.

″But when they’re gone, whose gonna love you? When Romeo died, Juliet killed her stupid self. She loved him more than her own self. Now do that make sense?″ Jerimey says.

BOOK: Skin I'm in, The
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